Cummins general manager Amit Soman had to adapt quickly when his company transferred him from Wisconsin to Beijing in 2008 and put him in charge of engine emissions business for China, India and other emerging markets.
“The key is nimbleness,” Soman told students Nov. 19 at Thunderbird School of Global Management during a presentation organized by Thunderbird’s Emerging Markets Business Association.
Soman shared a list of “strategic insights” for expatriates entering these markets.
1. Go native
Many expatriates working in China and India expect special treatment or accommodations, but Soman said things usually work out better for people who immerse themselves in their new environment. “Even if you’re only visiting for six months,” Soman said, “don’t act special in any way.”
2. Accept nuances
Expatriates might not like everything about their new cultural environment, but Soman said they need to accept certain things that can’t be changed.
“Deal with it,” Soman said. “Otherwise you’ll just end up getting frustrated.”
For example, confidentiality and privacy might mean something different in China than the United States. Soman said Chinese customers routinely ask him blunt questions about his age, salary or even company secrets.
They also ask him to defend the value of Cummins’ role in the global supply chain. “You get about 30 seconds to articulate your contribution to the value chain,” Soman said. “It’s your elevator speech, and you need to have that ready.”
3. Anticipate diverse reactions
Soman said he struggled at first to interpret the reactions of Chinese customers in business meetings and other settings. “The Chinese are closed in terms of expressions,” he said. “It is very difficult to read a Chinese interaction.” He said the opposite is true in India, where people like to argue and share their views openly.
4. Develop relationships
Business relationships matter in every market, but Soman said this is especially true in China and India. “If you’re able to call an individual on a Sunday morning and say, ‘How’s it going?,’ then you’re getting there,” he said.
Soman said this concept began to sink in after a client called him one day and asked him out to dinner. “It took me a while to realize how important that event was,” he said.
5. Learn the language
Expatriates can survive in most markets without learning the local language, but Soman said this creates a handicap. “If you don’t get the language, they will talk about you in the meeting,” he said. “That discussion will occur on the side, right in front of you.
6. Keep your connections
Some expatriates lose contact with upper management when they take an overseas assignment. Soman said this can hurt a person’s career. “You need to keep your connections with upper management,” he said.
7. Pay attention to retention
Hanging on to talented workers can be difficult in China and India, where other companies routinely offer pay hikes to lure them away.
One result is wage compression, where young workers who switch companies every few months or years end up with higher salaries than more experienced workers who stay loyal to one company. “It’s a very vicious cycle,” Soman said.
He said one strategy at Cummins is to focus on things such as corporate social responsibility and building a friendly workplace environment. “These things can create an incentive for your best workers to stay,” he said.